Tuesday, June 13, 2006

THE WORLD CUP COMES TO THE US
VENUE 2
HOLLYWOOD BILLIARDS BAR & GRILL, 5750 HOLLYWOOD BLVD
USA 0 CZECH REPUBLIC 3

8:20am: Early morning commuter traffic jams Hollywood Blvd. Ponder questions to be answered today: Will there be parking, or will we get another ticket? Will there be breakfast? Will breakfast please wife? Will America go mad for World Cup? Are American billiard halls just nests of thuggery and waspish violence like their English counterparts?

8:35am: Park in large vacant lot next to billiard hall. Billiard hall. Billiard. Hall. Cues inside. Balls inside. Remember scene from movie “Scum”: sock filled with snooker balls wrapped round geezer’s head. Slight jangling in pit of stomach. Remember Ipswich Snooker Hall. Darkness. Grim Mediaeval Darkness. Regret at wearing Korea shirt. Joy at wearing zip-up hoodie.

8:38am: Enter dark cavernous hall. Stale-beer-on-carpet smell. Wait for eyes to adjust.

8:39am: Bartender-cum-bouncer materialises from darkness. Asks if we are here for the hockey. Laughter emerges from darkness behind him. Say yes. Barkeep says it’s on tonight. I laugh. Barkeep persists. Asks if I want to watch baseball: “You know, the Yankees?” Tell him I prefer the A’s. Barkeep laughs. Tells me there hasn’t been much interest in the World Cup, so they’re only showing it on two screens. Gestures to distant corner where small group of men nurse early-morning pints. Plush carpet. Squishy chairs. American billiard halls not filled with scowling angry men with knife scars.

8:42am: Wife sits equidistant between the two screens. Peruses menu. Finds breakfast specials. Squints in darkness.

8:45am: Wife orders egg whites and bacon. Go figure. I order fried dead animals of various species.

8:48am: It is 4am dim and sound from the two screens arrives at slightly different moments, inducing headache and incoherence. There is no discernible beat or rhythm. Suspect I am in a German disco, but, being British I plan to sit and grumble about sound quality while muttering “Mustn’t grumble.” Being American, wife says “Oh my god this is terrible,” and relocates towards bigger screen. I follow.

8:53am: US fans wander in. Young and keen, but slightly sullen, like they might have had a fight on the way here. LA traffic then.

8:54am: Wife informs me she will not support US today. She is not happy with foreign policy right now. Not sure that US soccer team can be seen as extension of US foreign policy, until Bush comes on ESPN insisting the US should “give ‘em hell.” Whoever them is. No clue in his speech that he knows who the opposition is. No change there then. On hearing Bush, decide to support Czechs. Snorting sounds around me in darkness: suspect others feel similar.

8:55am: ESPN commentary heavy on remorseless optimism, backed by scads of stats. Realise that, just as they believe they can establish democracy in Iraq, US believe they can win World Cup. No, really. Very like the English then. Realisation is backed by straight-faced mention on TV that US are #5 in FIFA World rankings. Tittering around me: US football fans know this sport well, and know the ranking means nothing. Still, they are bright, shiney-faced and confident. Feel slightly worried, like I am watching a puppy cross the road.

8:57am: Still no mention of opposition, just like no mention of causes of resistance in Iraq. No mention of the Czech’s slick passing game, just like no mention of slick creation of bogeyman Zaqarwi. We are told the Czechs are old. We are told the US are young. We were told the war was over. We are told resistance is useless, or crumbling. Unbearable Lightness of Being Told Nothing But Clich├ęs.

8:57and-a-bit-am: National anthems. US team sing “Star Spangled Banner.” ESPN continues theme of ignoring outside world, and cuts away to adidas commercial before the Czech anthem. Attempt to impose will on world while ignoring its cultural traits is perhaps a blind spot.

9:00am: Kick-off. About 20 of us loiter now in front of the screens. Apparently the Aussies, the other nation that has no interest in footie and calls it soccer, went berserk for their game against Japan. Entire cities were out partying at 3am. But then, as my Aussie mate said, “Aussies will show up for the opening of an envelope.”

9:01am: ESPN commentators persist with the “Don’t mention the opposition” theme. It is true that football style reveals cultural traits. US style same as 2002: bags of energy and industry. Czechs look slick, controlled, adept. It’s Boy Scouts versus Biker Gang. I sit and watch the knives emerge with morbid fascination.

9:05am: Boy Scouts charge forward. Breakfast arrives. Czechs score. Resist temptation to applaud. “Shit.” “Fuck.” “Jeezus,” says the room. Somewhere someone slams something down, hard. Wife guffaws at celebrations of white-haired Czech coach. Whisper, “Did you notice the mood just got ugly in here?”

9:10am: Wife applauds breakfast. Fine piece of bacon. Nice egg whites.

9:25am: Finish last piece of dead animal. Coffee has a nice smokey note.

9:28am: US hits post. Mood lifts slightly back towards optimism, but with hint of resignation.

9:35am: Czechs score again. Anger replaces optimism.

9:38am: Hint of resignation becomes full-bodied note and replaces anger.

9:42am: US run around a lot. Czechs let them. Czechs intercept US runners at strategic moments. Commentators trundle out stats that reveal US has 57% possession. Czechs don’t care about stats: they pass ball around when they get it, find vast gaps in the US defence, then knife the ball through.


HALF TIME: Apparently, teams going in at half-time 2-0 down are 73, 0 and 1 in World Cup soccer. What does that mean? Whatever it means, it does not reveal the true extent of the horror. The Czechs have completely dominated the US. Expect them to come out for second half wearing stilletoes and leather. They close it down when they need to, control play in the vital final third, allow the US to run around like 4-year-olds on speed, while occasionally releasing vicious knifing attacks on goal. It is a nasty little mugging, but when you dress it up in stats, it doesn’t look half so bad: the US has not bled to death from its wounds, ergo there is hope. Vague, constant, prayerful hope. The future is always better. This latter is only essential difference between Americans and Brits: they speak of the future with fondness; we do the same, but for the past.

SECOND HALF: It becomes impossible to ignore comparisons between US media coverage of war, and US media coverage of the World Cup.

“US need more energy.” “More industry.” “Step up, take the ball.” “The US is moving in the wrong direction.” “Little intensity.” “The US has to beat Italy. They can, this team can do that.” “We lost to the Czechs in 1990.” “You have to keep fighting and keep your chin up.” “Turkey lost 2-1 to Brazil in the opening game of 2002 and finished 3rd.” “Re-energize and regroup.” “Very capable of getting results against Italy and Ghana.”

10:50am: Feel sorry for US fans. They cleave to their sorrow. I know this minute, have lived its years. The long slide into depression. Nothing cures it. No sugar, no drug, no club, no girl. Addicted now to football dreams, there is no hope for reality: only a thin distant prayer.

Final Verdict: Regardless of evidence to the contrary, expect GW Bush to declare “Mission Accomplished” in Berlin on July 9.

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